Homeowners in the Lake Berryessa Resort Improvement District could
soon pay a $524 sewer bill every two months under a proposal to
fix the ailing utility. They pay, on average, $92.50 every two
The exponential increase -- which could be approved April 4 -- and
the legal and administrative wrangling over it is the result of
what county officials call a failing 40-year-old water and sewer
infrastructure that will only cause more trouble if it doesn't get
a $2.3 million makeover soon.
According to lawsuits filed by state and county officials, the
small rural utility at the far northeast corner of Pope Valley has
at least an eight-year history of accidental sewage spills and
piecemeal equipment fixes.
The district is plagued by a $400,000 regulatory fine, a projected
$186,000 debt and a lawsuit from the state Attorney General that
could add another $2 million burden. County officials sued the
state in February hoping to get the fine waived. Both cases are
To make matters worse, county officials say the system recently
discharged partially treated sewage into the Lake Berryessa
watershed, an unintended event similar to one in 2005 that brought
the $400,000 fine.
Berryessa Estates woes
Public works officials and the Board of Supervisors are beginning
to hash out ways to get the district out of the hole it is in --
but every option involves substantial rate hikes for homeowners.
The Board is under pressure from state regulators and the Attorney
General to get tough fast. Proposed increases in water and sewer
rates will rival the most expensive for small utilities in the
region, with only a proposed water rate increase for an Angwin-area
utility being higher.
Average water rates in the district would go from $29.10 to $82
per month. Sewer rates would go from $92.50 in a bi-monthly bill
to $524. District homeowners already pay an additional $570 in
utility taxes each year.
Matthew Garcia will be one of those asked to shoulder the burden.
Garcia moved in a few months ago, happy to find a house he could
afford now that he works as director of public safety at Pacific
Union College. He was unaware of years of history where the
improvement district failed state standards and discharged sewage
into the Lake Berryessa watershed. No more.
"The question mark that raises in my head is where did we get
to be such a large problem and where does that responsibility
lie," he said.
County Supervisor Diane Dillon, who represents the area, said part
of that responsibility lies with county officials who approved the
far-flung Berryessa Estates subdivision in the 1960s.
Today, homeowners there describe the 351-parcel subdivision as an
affordable bedroom community for Angwin.
"You can't get a house in Angwin to purchase," Berryessa
Estates homeowner Sandy Sargent said. Sargent is also the director
of health services at PUC. She said her job brings her into
contact with district residents less well off than she is.
"I look at people that are going to need some subsidy,"
That predicament is something county officials want to avoid.
Dillon said there's little knowledge of who might need such help
or even how many families live in Berryessa Estates. Information
like that would be crucial for the board to make a decision about
the impact of the rates.
"I'm extremely concerned about it," she said.
County officials are looking at options to shield residents from
some costs of the rate increase, either by having the residents
pass a special tax, get the $400,000 fine attributed to part of
the cost of fixing the utility's equipment, or both. Dillon said
the utility might be able to find a way to charge owners of
"If this system is to be rebuilt it should not be on the
backs of the ratepayers," she said.
Yet officials said they find themselves under the gun to do
something fast, or negotiations with state regulators could go
south before they begin.
"We've been criticized by the Regional Water Quality Control
Board and then by the Attorney General's office that we're not
willing to take action," Dillon said. Working with them, she
said, is "critical to our success."
State regulators did not return phone calls requesting comment.
Napa County Public Works Director Bob Peterson said state
regulators have recently been unmoved by the utility's troubles.
"We tried to argue that we needed time to work with the
community because you can't just raise rates like that and expect
it to go over very well."
Regardless of negotiations, he said, ultimately the utility needs
an infusion of cash to pay off a capital improvement loan it needs
to fix its equipment.
"What happens next year if we get a heavy rain and we haven't
solved this problem?" Peterson said. "We don't know what
the fines are going to be."
John Hallman, a Berryessa Estates homeowner, said he agrees, but
he wants homeowners to have some say in the rate increase.
"It's not going to be good no matter how it ends up," he
said. "But maybe we can make it a semi-win situation."